Pregnancy Pact” Fiasco Disgraces Press…Again

Pregnancy Pact” fiasco disgraces press…again

June 27, 2008

The national and international media frenzy trumpeting Gloucester, Massachusetts’, “spike” in teenage pregnancy blamed on an imagined “pregnancy pact” has now degenerated into just the latest feverishly manufactured teen legend. Just about none of this lurid fable now appears to have any validity.

Major media agencies aped Time magazine in solemnly reciting tales by local officials that pregnant Gloucester High School girls had forged a pact to deliberately get pregnant, were “high-fiving” each other in glee, had partners including a 24-year-old homeless man, and represented a national trend toward rising teen pregnancy incited by popular culture images, movies such as “Juno,” and whatever other notions commentators (most sporting zero knowledge of the situation) saw fit to blurt.

All of the facts surrounding this mythical “pact” now appear either fabricated or dubious. No evidence has emerged to confirm pregnancy pacts, organized celebrations, homeless impregnators, or other tittilating rumors. When thegirls were finally interviewed(and then only after local authorities reversed themselves in the face of a media barrage that was negatively affecting their upscale town’s image), all expressed bafflement at the notion of a “pact.” Theprincipal who spread the malicious rumor to the press suddenly became vague in his memory.

Having been fooled on every detail didn’t stop the press from mindlessly recycling claims of a “spike” in Gloucester’s teen pregnancies, from an average of four in previous years to 17 this year. These numbers also are highly questionable. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports 44 births by mothers ages 19 and younger in Gloucester in the three-year period from 2004 through 2006. Factoring in abortions, miscarriages, and gestation periods, there were around 30 to 35 pregnancies per year among girls 18 and younger, two-thirds or more of which would have occurred among girls attending the only major high school. Clearly, Gloucester high schoolers experienced far more than four pregnancies per year in past years; 20 to 25 per year would seem a more likely. Even if accurate, then, the 17 pregnancies reported this year, especially given fluctuations common to small numbers, may not represent a spike at all.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve analyzed hundreds of sensational, press-reported teen legends, many detailed on this site and in articles for Fairness and Accuracy in Media’s Extra magazine. These included repeated media alarms alleging massive epidemics of teenage heroin abuse, youthful murder, junior high sex orgies, marauding adolescent mobs, Internet predators and bullies, teen suicide, school mayhem, “teen dating violence,” girls’ brutality, and other supposed debaucheries. In nearly every case, investigation yielded the same dismal results: these stories were not just false, but often crazily so.

In story after story, reporters uncritically quoted “officials” and “experts” and failed to check readily available studies and statistics contradicting their claims. Ferreting out what really happened (or didn’t) has proven much less important than exploiting teen legends. Commentators and interest groups heralded Gloucester’s story (or non-story) to buttress precast agendas variously advocating more funding for school clinics, abolishing school clinics, blaming whatever pop-culture images the critic most deplored, berating teenage girls, and self-righteously affirming the moral superiority of the commentator. Bad information produces bad policies, a major reason the United States lags far behind other Western nations in virtually every quality of life index.

The herd-journalism frenzy surrounding Gloucester’s “pregnancy pact” reiterates that if reporters and editors want to report accurately and fairly on young people, a renewed ethic of professional skepticism is needed. Simply quoting “experts” and “officials” on youth issues is insufficient; many are too biased by political, organizational, and personal interests to be reliable. Secondhand anecdotes, claims, and statistics regarding teens must be rigorously verified. A variety of knowledgeable, carefully interviewed youthful sources often produces more insight than random grownup imaginings. But today’s institutions don’t seem capable of handling youth issues responsibly.

Most of all, the motives behind today’s treatment of youths as mere commodities to horrify, titillate, and profit demand searching scrutiny. Why do the news media and interest groups eagerly clarion teen-horror myths while ignoring genuine youth problems such as widespread poverty and family abuses? We need better answers to these questions than “because we can.”